Saturday, 21 February 2015

The First Line of your story

They say first impressions count. How you enter the room. How you shake hands. Whether you look the other person straight in the eye.

The first line of a story matters too. I have never written a story, but I imagine that authors take extra special care to make sure that very first line (okay, perhaps we'll allow them a couple of lines and call it the first phrase) says exactly what they want it to say.

I've had a look at the first lines of three of my favourite novels. In doing this, I discovered something interesting (to me). I don't have many novels. I have lots of technical books, business books, science books, history books but very few novels. Strange. I hadn't realised that before.

But I do have three books. And they have great opening lines. Here are mine. What are yours?

Smiley's People by John Le Carre

My favourite spy book. I love the slightly bemused way George Smiley wanders through the murky shadow world of cold war spying. This is the first line of Smiley's People:

"Two seemingly unconnected events heralded the summons of Mr.George Smiley from his dubious retirement"

I love this line. It introduces Smiley, but with appropriate formality as Mr. George Smiley. That tells us a lot straight way. This isn't someone you casually refer to as "George". It's Mr. Smiley to you if you don't mind.

And why did Mr Smiley need to be summoned from his retirement? Why was his retirement dubious? What are these two events? Seemingly unconnected, but how are they actually connected?

This is a slow, intricate wander through a complex world of questions through the eyes of Mr. Smiley. The first line captures the whole flavour of the story in that one opening line.

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

One of my all time favourite books. Some people don't warm to this book but I like it a lot. I think on the few occasions that I do read a novel, I like to drift away into a magical mystery world and you know from the first line that you are in for an interesting journey:

"In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world"

There is a biblical power to this opening statement. "In the beginning was the Word" is the first verse of the Gospel according to John. Here we have a river, which becomes a road. It feels alive. It is in control of it's own destiny and it has a purpose, almost a sinister purpose, branching out unbidden to the whole world. Or perhaps it has a message. Either way, it invites us to go on the journey and see what we find along this road that used to be a river.

Notice that we are not immediately introduced to any characters. Rather it emphasises that the road that used to be a river is the central character in this book. If you haven't read this book, I can assure you that within a paragraph of reading this opening, you will either put this book down and check what's on TV instead or you will be up all night, drifting as the magical road that used to be a river sweeps you along.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

I lift the huge tome that is The Lord of the Rings down from my bookshelves with great reverence. This three volume book helped me at some difficult times. I hid inside it and let the high wall of Gondor protect me. Mine is the Harper Collins edition, beautifully illustrated by Alan Lee. I hardly need to open it to quote the first line but here it is:

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton"

Ah, so much, so much to enjoy in this line.This is an invitation to you, the reader, to attending this party of special magnificence. I dream of throwing a party of special magnificence and perhaps one day I will. When I am eleventy-one may be. I urge you to accept the invitation and come to this book's party. You won't regret it.

It does make you wonder. If you think of your life as a story (Tua Fabula) what would your opening line be?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

My New Philosophy: The Juicy Mango of Life

Have you ever eaten a juicy mango? I mean a juicy mango straight from the tree. Well, if you have then my new philosophy: The Juicy Mango of Life will make perfect sense to you. If not, let me explain.

When I was young, we went to live in Kampala, Uganda for a few years. That is where I first discovered mango trees. We had some in our garden. We would circle those trees with sticks like hunters as the mangoes grew, painfully slowly. First they were green and hard. But gradually they ripened into juicy mangoes with green, red and yellow skins.

And then they fell.

Or rather they floated down whispering sweet nothings to your taste-buds. "I am the juicy mango of life. I am yours. Take me". And we did.

Eating a juicy mango is a full contact sport. You can't sit on the sidelines. You plunge your face into the juiciest part of the juicy mango. Juice dribbles down your chin. Bits of mango get stuck in your teeth. For a few moments, Man and Mango become One. The rest of the world ceases to exist as you focus your undivided attention on the juicy mango. You might hear the distant sound of your father's voice shouting "Thomas, Thomas, come and clean your room, boy" but The Mango owns you!

And so to my New Philosophy: The Juicy Mango of Life.

We work. We strive. We stress and strain. We hustle and bustle. We win. We lose. But when do we LIVE?

With the Juicy Mango of Life you seek out short, sharp moments of complete delight and you allow them to embrace you completely. You grab your juicy mangoes with both hands, plunge your face in, let the juice run down your chin, let the bits get stuck in your teeth and let The Mango own you for a few brief moments. Why? Because "juicy mango dude", that's all.

Now like all good mass movements destined to sweep the world, Juicy Mango has some strict rules passed down by Ancient Prophets of Old (by which I mean I just made them up). We call these rules MINE.

M stands for ME. Me, me, me. Juicy Mango is a purely selfish philosophy. Who ever heard of someone sharing a juicy mango? Never, never. Your brother or sister might stand there looking longingly while you gorge on your mango but you must never share. Remember: You work hard. You Deserve The Mango. That's not to say that your best friend can't sit down with you while you both gorge on your own juicy mangoes together, grinning at each other out of sheer enjoyment. That's allowed.

I stands for Interval. Leave time between your juicy mangoes. If you have a juicy mango every day you will get sick. Sick of mangoes. Sick of life. Just sick. But if you leave an interval between mangoes, you will start to look forward excitedly to the next mango and the mango after that, and so on. The daily grind merely becomes the bridge between mangoes. I suggest granting yourself a Juicy Mango every two months. You should certainly never be more than three months away from your next Juicy Mango.

N stands for Naughty. Juicy Mangoes are intrinsically naughty. Not very naughty. Not Capital N Naughty. Just naughty enough. Eating a juicy mango when, really you should be doing your homework makes it that tiny bit sweeter. Your eyes should be darting around (metaphorically) in case you are spotted enjoying your mango too much. You should grin sheepishly if caught, like waiting for your partner to go to bed, saying you'll be up in a minute, then breaking out the treacle pudding and custard only to see the door swing open as they come back downstairs to get something.

E stands for Exceptional. There are lots of green mangoes. But a Juicy Mango is special. It stands out. It's not business as usual. It's something different. It's three days at a Spa in Marrakesh. It's an afternoon off work wandering around your favourite bookshop. It's a back and shoulder massage slipped into the diary between important business meetings. It's reading a book that no-one finds funny but makes you literally cry with laughter. Short, sharp moments of delight. Three hours to three days of real joy and pleasure.

So, as you strive and struggle through the harsh realities of life, look out for the Juicy Mangoes. Seek them out and when one falls into your hands, or you knock one off your neighbour's tree with a stick, grasp it with both hands, chant "it's Mine Mine Mine" and plunge yourself into it with such abandon that for a few brief moments you and your juicy mango become one and the world and it's challenges fade into the background

The other day, me and one of my best friends were lounging in the sun on deckchairs by a pool, reading books and doing nothing. We looked at each other. "Juicy Mango, dude" he said. "Juicy Mango" I replied. Then we laughed and went back to our books and nothing.